The Bhai Bicycle

The vintage Raleigh bicycle used to be known as the Bhai bicycle as it was preferred by local Sikhs who were bigger in physique.

It was also popular with mobile hawkers as it can manage heavy cargo. This one is missing the center stand, chain box, dynamo, teardrop-shaped headlight and bell.

The likeable thing about Mokhtar is that he is not an aloof or narrowly-focused man, given his fame and success. He engages you in a genuine conversation and can talk about anything under the sun.

The baker asked me which other Slim River attraction I will be visiting next.

Me: I like to hear your recommendations.

Mokthar: I can tell you like places with “character”.

Me: True. That’s why I am here.

Mokhtar: Go to Slim Village then, where there is a strange town square. And don’t forget to visit the nearby hot springs and waterfalls.

Me: I like strange places.

Mokthar: I know. You are strange, too.

He proceeded to give me some very specific and useful directions. With a kaya bun in hand, off I went chasing waterfalls again.

Sony Alpha a7R, ISO 125, f4, 1/320 sec.

Meeting Jabba The Hutt At Mokhtar’s

In a darkened room, I met the monster Mokhtar keeps as a pet. I nicknamed it Jabba the Hutt. Built by Mokhtar’s father in 1954, the brick oven is similar in design to those used in villages in India. The masonry oven known as a brick oven or stone oven dates back to medieval times.

Jabba has a an insatiable appetite for firewood. Mokhtar’s father used to feed it rubberwood when rubber trees were plentiful in Malaysia. It is now fed with discarded wooden furniture. I asked Mokhtar and his response was: “Kayu getah sangat mahal sekarang, bro” (Rubberwood is very expensive now, bro).

So whenever someone in Slim River wants to discard old furniture, they send it to Mokhtar. The bakery is like a recycling center for wood. He turns wood into ashes and bread.

Mokhtar is a media-savvy person. He knew I wanted to capture the ray of lights spilling out from a hole in the ceiling. He waited patiently as I fine-tuned the power of the Sony HVL-F60M wireless flash.

He (Mokhtar, not Jabba) is a celebrity. I understand he appeared on all local television channels from TV1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 to TV 36 or something. He took me to his house nearby to show me newspaper cuttings and pictures framed and hanging from in his living room wall.

While there, I noticed furniture was unusually sparse. In my mind, I wanted to ask Mokhtar:

“Bro, if i were to give you a nice IKEA wood table for your birthday, will you promise to assemble it and use it as a table?”

I didn’t ask in the end for I can’t bear to hear his answer. To be continued…

Sony Alpha a7R, ISO 2500, f4, 1/60 sec.

Fresh From The Oven

Baker Mokhtar’s late father was Indian-Muslim and his mother a Malay. Like his paternal grandfather, they are from a long line of bakers from Northern India.

I was pleasantly surprised to hear him describe the filling of each type of bread bun in Cantonese. There’s Yeah Chi (coconut shavings), Chee Mah (sesame), Ngau Yow (butter), Kar Yang (kaya or coconut egg jam) and Tau Sar (bean paste); Mokhtar rattled away.

It may seem routine to Mokhtar but if you think about it, what a rich tradition he inherited. Wonderful to taste this heritage product that has adapted to local taste by blending recipes from different cultures.

Mokhtar also bakes regular white Bengali bread loaves but they weren’t ready at the time I was there.

Next: I asked him to show me the big traditional brick oven that he has hidden in another room.

Sony Alpha a7R, ISO 400, f4, 1/60 sec.

Mokhtar Le Baker

It is unfortunate that this more than half-a-century old bakery is known as a factory (or kilang). In reality, it is a one-man baker outfit and an artisan one at that. Every loaf, bun and pastry is lovingly hand-crafted by Mokhtar himself. No workers, interns or apprentices behind the scenes.

Put him in Klang Valley and call it a boulangerie patisserie instead of kilang and fad-hungry hipsters will swoon all over him , even without him proclaiming sourdough.

We must be thankful that Mokhtar don’t give two hoots about such things. Not even about glutens. The easy-going character don’t care about a lot of things. He opens at 10:30am or thereabouts and closes at 11:30am or thereabouts, earlier when the breads are sold out.

Fortunately for his customers, the man is OCD about signage. On those days when he decides not to open, Mokhtar places signs on the roads outside announcing “Kilang Roti Tutup” (Bread Factory Closed). They are like those middle-of-the-road placards you see when roads are closed for National Day parade rehearsals. After all, the man and the bakery is Slim River’s most famous landmark or attraction.

It took me three trips on three different days before I could catch him in person. Greeted by a shut door previously, I ended up staring at the piles of broken furniture lying around the yard. That kind of gave me a clue on the eccentric character that he is. Don’t tell me he uses all these broken furniture as firewood to fire up the oven, I wondered.

As it turns out, we get along quite well. For I am as eccentric and OCD like him. I keep telling him the door is not perfectly level.

More on the bakery coming up.

Sony Alpha a7R, ISO 100, f8, 1/100 sec.

Teng Wun

Mr Wun the baker and proprietor of Teng Wun Cake Shop, together with his wife, are making 400 to 500 pieces of kaya puffs a day, and were doing so for the last 30 years or so.

Quite an amazing number considering there are not that many residents, let alone tourists in KKB. Many of his customers are locals, including Indians, Malays and Orang Asli folks.

Kaya, also known as coconut custard is of Peranakan origin and not Hainanese, I believe.

Local Hainanese people (originally from the Island of Hainan in South China) are known for their culinary skills, especially fusion food of East and West.

Chicken chop and kaya-butter toasts are Malaysian-Hainanese inventions. Many also used to work on the trains’ (KTM) catering coach and operate kopitiam (coffee shops) around the country.

Another Hainanese in town proffered a theory as to why they are good cooks. They were latecomers to then Malaya. They came after the earlier wave of migration by the Hokkiens, Cantonese, Teochews and Hakkas. By the time they arrived, all viable business opportunities and job openings were controlled by powerful clans and triads.

Without a membership card, they ended up working for English expats (wealthy colonialists) as cooks and caretakers of mansions. Here at KKB, several Hainanese residents and their ancestors used to work at the colonial bungalows up on Fraser’s Hill.

It was from the British families that they were introduced to western food and they soon enhanced the recipes further by adding Chinese touches. It is also claimed that they modified a kebab leftover from a garden party one night and added peanut sauce.

The creators named it “Sar Tay” meaning ‘three pieces’ in Hainanese, and voilĂ !; satay was born. Most likely an urban legend but quite possible considering their inventive kitchen skills.

Back to Mr Woon. His shop also sells the famous kaya by itself in small jars. The spread used on bread is thinner than the kaya used for the puffs. Mr Woon says a thicker version is used in the puffs so that is easier to wrap the skin around.

The nice gentleman offered me some complimentary butter sponge cakes to try. I turned that down to leave tummy room for the puffs. Yes. They are the world’s most awesome kaya puffs.

Sony Alpha a7R, ISO 2000, f9, 1/60 sec.